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“The State is the ultimate expression of society”

December 15th, 2010 Posted in freedom, Liberal Philosophy by

Regular readers of Liberal Vision will be surprised to see the above title as this site doesn’t tend to promote the State. Do not fear, there has been no sudden change of heart.

At the weekend, I was out with a Labour voting friend and inevitably we discussed the tuition fee row/debacle/progressive policy (delete as appropriate).

His justification for why university education should be entirely funded from general taxation was based on his view that “the State is the ultimate expression of society”.

Two things struck me about that phrase.

The first was that this view underpins a lot of debates in Britain. This view is no doubt widely held by many people even if they don’t think about the issues exactly like that.

The other thing that struck me was that it sounded vaguely familiar. When I got home I did a quick search of quotes by Benito Mussolini and found this: “All within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”

If my friend is right about the State then society is within the State, not outside it and will not be against it.

I should say he is not a fascist. He would be horrified at the thought.  In fact, he stands for everything that isn’t fascism.  At least as far as he understands what fascism is.

George Orwell and A.F. Hayek both wrote about the closeness between State socialism and fascism.  In his recent book, Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg argues that Fabian socialism admired Mussolini and supported many of his policies.

If everything is to be within the State then everyone has to accept that the State should do everything, or at least be involved in everything.

If Mussolini’s view has become part and parcel of how many people think about government policy, then liberals and non-Statists in all three political parties (because there are non-Statists in the other two) have a lot of work to change that perception.

That doesn’t mean one has to be anti all State activity. But if one believes that people are best placed to make decisions about their lives then scepticism about authority, especially State authority, naturally follows.

Perhaps liberals need to make the argument that voluntary association between individuals who use co-operative means like free and open markets, contracts and natural rights is the ultimate expression of society.

9 Responses to ““The State is the ultimate expression of society””

  1. Tristan Says:

    I’m pretty sure that Mussolini migrated from the authoritarian left to fascism, certainly others like Mosely did.

    Also, the authoritarian ‘progressive’ left of the era were great fans of eugenics (the Webbs are notable in this, and even Liberals like Keynes weren’t totally opposed).

    You see this ‘nothing but the state’ idea in local government – the Labour/LibDem coalition in Waltham Forest at one point had a poster campaign talking of the borough as ‘one community’ despite it being an arbitrary boundary with little shared history or indeed community across the borough.

    Communities and society are not things of the state or granted by the state, they are organised by people who have common cause. The idea of the state as society erodes the commonalities people have rather than strengthening them by deliberately destroying community services and replacing them with hierarchical imposed services from the centre.


  2. Nicholas Says:

    I agree, like Elizabeth I and Cromwell, that the state is the expression of the community and should be a commercial unit. I used to be an individualist liberal but I came to believe that holding ideological views as principles that never change (that is, an abstract set of ideas applied to everywhere and at any time) is wrong.

    Take the example of the Liberal policy of free trade, which one Liberal leader compared to the law of gravitation (!). It may have been beneficial for Britain for a few decades after 1846 but when North American farms exported vast amounts of cereals cheaply after the 1870s and thereby ruined British agriculture and rural society, it surely would have been prudent to erect tariffs against them.

    The outcome of the free trade policy was that in the two world wars this country came close to starvation because of the German U-boat. However the Liberals had promised free trade would ensure world peace and would not ruin British agriculture.


  3. Dick Puddlecote Says:

    I accept that your friend would be horrified to be linked with fascist mantras, but it’s still very disturbing that he should have been inculcated so much as to come up with such a justification himself.

    If such ideas are now so deeply embedded, we really do have a lot to fear for the future.


  4. Simon Goldie Says:

    Dick, I agree. I suspect a lot of people think like that. That is why I think it is important to have a counter narrative around voluntary co-operation.


  5. Jon Says:

    It’s a fair argument, but why respond to such a flawed premise? Liberalism shouldn’t have a view on “the ultimate expression of society”. That’s for Tories hankering after some revisionist vision of a perfect past, or socialists with a naive dream of utopia.

    The points you make are the basic features of all today’s developed nations and democracies, and the case is better made by people’s longer lives and improved living standards than by debating definitions. A similar argument was made by Francis Fukuyama (in The End of History) about thirty years back. Experience shows it does more to encourage criticism and complacency, depending on your viewpoint, than it does change people’s minds.

    Let the fundamental feature of liberalism be that it continues to evolve and adapt over time. Voluntary association and so forth works, but rather than claiming to have found the “ultimate expression” we should be striving to learn and build on what has gone before for some time yet.


  6. Simon Goldie Says:

    Jon, that is a well made point. I had not meant to imply that the ‘ultimate expression’ was a utopian vision. More that individuals voluntarily co-operating was a better expression of society than everything being done by the State. While today’s developed nations do have those features they also have other features that are obstacles to the evolution of a liberal society.

    I would say more that the fundamental feature of liberalism is that people control their own lives as much as possible. Voluntary co-operation is part of that but there are many other elements such as free speech.

    I hope that clarifies what I was trying to cover.


  7. Senor Patterson Says:

    AS Goldberg’s book points out current left wing ideology is inherently fascist. The quote elucidated above can be read as “the state is the ultimate expression of (the left’s) power” and thus as a levelling (down) social engineering tool – a ‘clunking fist’ vs. ‘invisible hand’ if you will – to enforce their own warped view of utopia.

    The author is right, scepticism of the state can indeed lead to people wanting to take control of their own lives. Moreover, current (state driven) economic stress can provide an optimal opportunity for the state to fade away much quicker than usually would be the case.

    The first step is to prioritise government spending taht protects our rights (the police, judiciary and military etc.) and then phase out all non-capital investment borrowing.

    Financial reality could be more powerful than the ideological sword.


  8. Tom Papworth Says:

    Simon, welcome aboard. Nice to have you posting at long last!

    The expression that “The State is the ultimate expression of society” reminds me of a conversation I had with a well-known Liberal Socialist at Liberal Drinks once. I can’t remember his exact phrase (it wasn’t quite the one your friend used) but it was something along the lines of “The state is the means that society uses to solve collective problems.”

    Not only is this talk of “society” as an agent rather than a phenomenon inherently collectivist and thus fundamentally at odds with liberalism, I also found it surprisingly – I would even say disturbingly – naive and un-critical, not to mention utopian.

    Tristan: “I’m pretty sure that Mussolini migrated from the authoritarian left to fascism, certainly others like Mosely did.”

    Conversely, it was the rise of socialism in Europe that opened the door for the fascist/nazi parties. They began to demonise capitalism and liberalism, and to promote collectivisation; the end was inevitable.


  9. Simon Goldie Says:

    Thanks Tom. Well at least my friend has helped stimulate a lot of liberal debate. From all the comments, I think there is a need for more of an exploration of what society means to liberals as there seems to be several interpretations of it.